Pity the poor person who had to unite three contrasting dances under one descriptor to sell tickets. American Ballet Theatre’s American Splendor featured Theme and Variations, George Balanchine’s love letter to the bygone ballet world of Tsarist Russia, Alonzo King’s haphazardly constructed Single Eye and Jessica Lang’s frothy ZigZag, set to a collection of Tony Bennett songs. Is there splendor in the program at the Metropolitan Opera House? For sure, though the moments that resonated with me may differ for you, which checks out. This program has places of appeal for everyone and anyone.

Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo in Theme and Variations
© The George Balanchine Trust | Rosalie O'Connor

A more intriguing question than interrogating a marketing moniker realizes itself as the evening unfolds. What makes a choreographer good? Does their secret sauce lie in a strong voice where the dance-maker’s values are evident and compelling? Or is it their ability to deploy craftsmanship in service of the piece’s subject matter?

If you’re talking about Balanchine, the answer is, obviously, both. In Theme and Variations, he displays the hierarchy of a classical ballet company in miniature. Soloists and a corps de ballet attend to one principal duo, just like a royal court. Under the guise of a textbook composition exercise, Balanchine teases basic academic exercises of tendus and port de bras into an extravagant spectacle. Beneath glittering chandeliers and between elegant columns – a throwback to the ballrooms where ballet first flourished – dancers pose in grand formations and execute dignified canons. As if garlands, their arms curl above their heads in ovals. At the end, all 26 artists promenade through an opulent polonaise. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins zestfully takes the orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s “Theme and Variations” from his Orchestral Suite no. 3. His enthusiasm is a gift to the dancers. The music goes under their pandemic-weakened legs to help them soar.

How awkward it must be to perform a Balanchine warhorse a skip, hop and jeté from the David H Koch Theater, where the premier company devoted to his ethos resides. The good news? ABT turns in a mostly passable rendition. Lead Skylar Brandt dances with careful sparkle – a diamond that won’t abandon the safety of her setting to shine in full. Stepping in for an injured Aran Bell, Herman Cornejo, Brandt’s partner, gets through the thorny phrases of pirouettes from fifth position and tours en l’air but with little grace and even less ardor. His relief is palpable at the end.

Single Eye
© Marty Sohl

The company appears in better form during King’s Single Eye, a major plus in a piece that teems with minuses. Supposedly, the work finds its inspiration in Matthew 6:22, a verse from the Sermon on the Mount. Outside of a riveting, breathy solo by Calvin Royal III, Single Eye could be called Whatever and be about anything. Costumes that range from gossamer tops to leotards with architectural hip ruffles contribute to the incoherence.

King possesses a confident, distinct viewpoint. His jazz-ballet hybrid emphasizes turned-in passés, flexed hands and feet, booty tooches, and so many crotch-baring développés that if you were playing a drinking game with them, you’d be out cold five minutes in. 

Various assemblages of dancers exercise these repetitive motifs against a backdrop of wrinkled beige fabric that evokes a blank piece of parchment. The cast attacks their steps like they care. Yet Jason Moran’s disjointed, overstuffed score of shmaltzy piano and thrumming percussion thwarts their efforts by sounding like nothing they are doing.

My issue with King’s choreography isn’t with his movement, but with his lack of development. Four dancers folding their bodies like origami grip my imagination. Yet, a minute or so later, they’ve ambled off stage, and it’s back to more thwacking développés – drink! Like a rectangle of used plastic wrap, a transparent backdrop descends to form a tunnel across the stage’s back. Several dancers glide through it, but that’s the extent of its importance. The curtain closes on a slinky pas de deux (a medium in which King dominates) for Isabella Boylston and Thomas Forster, but why end here on this? Where’d everyone else go?

Luciana Paris, Devon Teuscher and Cassandra Trenary in ZigZag
© Rosalie O’Connor

Jessica Lang knows who the star of ZigZag is: Tony Bennett. The beloved crooner trained in the bel canto style, which prolonged his career deep into the sunset years. With a wink to mid-century musicals and films, she illuminates the subjects of Bennett’s songs: spring, cities and smiles. Smartly, she forgoes bravura feats for carefree gestures and visual puns. As Jarod Curley pines for San Francisco, a group extends their arms overhead to suggest a city skyline. One man in polka-dotted palazzo pants simpers like a bathing beauty atop three male performers. The company shimmies and shakes and slow dances, all with noticeable, appreciable charm. Lang keeps the madcap fun from sliding into outright goofiness thanks to brisk pacing and winsome tableaux. These are but two examples of her excellent artistry. 

So how come I kept tearing up? Because under the sunniness lingers a note of melancholy for the moments that have come and gone. Pay attention, Lang and Bennett seem to be saying, so you can remember it all later. 

***11